Beartown by Fredrik Backman
I am seeing this novel everywhere and it continues to pick up a lot of interest. So I was delighted when I was approached by a friend on Instagram who asked if I would like to read this with her and a few friends. I delightedly said yes and was pleased I did. This turned out to be a humdinger of a novel, and is I think my first 5 star review of the month. This is the first in the Beartown series of novels.
Please note there will be spoilers ahead, so If you are planning on reading the novel then I would go ahead and do that before reading my review. All good? Good let's go.
Beartown, Sweden is a run down town, but with a collective obsession about ice-hockey. The town lives and breathes this sport and the hopes of the whole town are pinned on the Junior Team winning the league, by winning their last 2 matches. If the Team win, investment will come to the town through the building of an Ice-Hockey Academy, which means more jobs, and a better way of life for this run-down town and it's townsfolk.
The team is led by the charismatic captain Kevin, whose whole life revolves around Ice-Hockey pushed by demanding parents. His best friend Benji, also on the team and protector of Kevin, is hiding a secret. We also follow the story of Amat, a young boy not from the town, badly bullied by the team but who manages to win his place on the team. He is made to understand that the Team comes above everything else, even if it is wrong. But then at a party to celebrate the win, Kevin rapes Maya. As details of this heinous crime emerge, the town's recriminations become focused on Maya and secrets begin to spill out.
There is so much to discuss about this book but the first thing I want to touch on is the atmosphere of the novel. This is dark and oppressive thanks to Backman's pacing and writing. Throughout the novel there is a feeling of approaching doom. We are made aware throughout the first half of the book that something terrible is going to happen, without actually knowing what it is. It reads hard as I managed to suspect everyone of either a) committing this unknown crime or b) being the victim. As I became more invested in the characters, I found myself hoping nothing was going to happen to them particularly Amat and Benji.
The screw is constantly turned throughout the narrative until when the crime is committed, even though it is heinous, actually brings a slight respite for the reader. But having spent half of the book fearing who the victim might be and what is going to happen to them, I still had the other half of the book to read, which brings its own sense of darkness. It was the equivalent of climbing a mountain at a relentless, to get to the top, only to discover it is not the top at all.
Here be more spoilers
Following the rape of Maya by Kevin, Maya is unable to process what has happened. She shuts down completely and destroys all evidence on her clothes and herself unable to believe what has happened to her. It is only with the help of her best friend, Ana that she agrees to go to the police a week after the event. As Kevin is arrested on the coach taking the team to the final, what then follows is horrific and even more sadly, believable. The town turn on Maya.
If the first half of the novel was the build up to the crime, the second half is certainly the town's reaction to it.
The most worrying aspect of Fredrik Backman's writing is that he conveys a story that is so believable. At the time of typing up this review ready for publication, we are witnessing a young woman admit on American television that she contemplated suicide, and parts of the media in the UK have turned on her, calling her attention-seeking and that she is 'contemptible' for raising it at such a time. Whatever your views are on this subject, it has worrying echoes of the events and reactions in this book.
The town is so invested in its hockey team and a hint of a better future that they question Maya's motives. Why did she wait a week to report the crime? Was she seeking attention - waiting until the team were on their way to the final? At school her peers turn against her, she was wearing provocative clothes, she was drunk and fancied the captain. She is called 'Slut' and forced to sit alone at dinner, until her brother Leo comes to sit with her. At no point is any finger pointed at Kevin. Indeed him and his family are supported by the town who actually sympathise with him.
As I say, if I did not already think that this novel was well-written, the events of this week certainly back this up.
This is a book about reactions, namely the reaction's of Kevin's teammates. The theme of Team is dominant throughout. 'Team or Die'. Amat witnessed the immediate aftermath of the crime, seeing a distraught Maya and an unapologetic Kevin. He is told in no uncertain terms that if he stays quiet, then his family situation will improve. His strong, dignified mother works as a cleaner but has crippling Arthritis. A job could be found for her in an office as long as Amat keeps the information to himself. This is a young man, an outsider who has finally found a team, a tribe if you will, but is struggling with the question of right and wrong. Out of this comes a wonderful friendship with a fellow team-mate.
Benji, knowing Kevin so well, knows what he has done and distances himself from the team and Kevin. Quietly he supports and protects Maya, by deflecting the physical aspects of pain onto himself, taking the blame for the consequences of her anger. His sexuality is written sensitively and respectfully as he embarks on his first gentle romance.
The adult's response is fascinating. Maya's family, creating a new life for themselves in Beartown following the devastating loss of a child, come to realise that they cannot keep their children safe.
The coaches assess how much pressure they are putting on their team - Is hockey making them aggressive? Rapists? What cost is winning? But it is the formidable bar owner Ramona who rightly says 'hockey doesn't rape women, it is men who rape women'.
Each character is complex, beautifully written and ultimately believable. That word again. We believe Maya's reaction to her rape, we believe Amat's dilemma and the immense peer pressure he faces. Even Kevin is complex, his parents focused on winning and perfection at all costs.
There are light moments; Kira and Fatima's friendship, Bobo and his father's embarrassed conversation about sex had me hooting with laughter. Benji and his formidable sisters. And as the town eventually fractures, the end of the book manages to end up feeling lighter in some way.
The book is stuffed to the gills with strong women. Fatima, Amat's mother acts as a moral compass which has also passed to her son. Quiet, dignified and proud of who she is. She is wonderful.
Maya, her dignity with how she copes not just with the rape, but the town's reaction to her. Her mother Kira, the original tiger mother, determined to fight Kevin and his family to the bitter end. Ana, Maya's best friend who supports Maya throughout. Ramona, the tough plain speaking bar-owner with a set of equally tough men at her disposal to check the town does not completely go off the rails. Benji's strong sisters, helping to mould Benji into the fine man he becomes.
All of these are encompassed beautifully at the end by a 4 year old girl choosing to play ice-hockey.
If I was to give one example of how beautifully and carefully written this book is, I would talk about Zacharias, Amat's best friend until he joins the team. Unable to cope with the bullying he receives from the team and now Amat, he breaks into the school with a bucket and a length of rope. Backman leads you to the door. and I found myself reading on in horror willing that Zacharias would not take his own life.....and then Zacharias does something not expected and I found myself punching the air shouting 'YES!'
This is not an easy read; rape, homophobia, victim shaming are not easy topics to read. But Fredrik Backman has written about them sensitively and with plenty for the reader to reflect. It is a wonderful example of a book that makes you think and consider your own actions and beliefs. I am delighted to give this five Stars.